Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Head of the Class

January 16, 2011

l-r: Linda Gehringer, Brian Kerwin, Marin Hinkle, Lily Holleman and Arye Gross Photo: Henry DiRocco 2011

Orange County’s South Coast Repertory is no stranger to new works or the latest and greatest of recent plays that have started life elsewhere. So it is no surprise that the company and artistic directors David Emmes and Martin Benson moved to bring a work from arguably the hottest young playwright of the moment, Annie Baker, to Southern California. Her comedy, Circle Mirror Transformation, opened there over the weekend with an excellent, seasoned cast, and I’m happy to say that Baker’s work lives up to all of the hype that precedes her. Not only does it have one of the best play titles in years, it is an inventive, smart comedy that sets a fairly high standard for anything else you might see on a local stage this year.

The set up is simple. Four students and a teacher meet at a local community center in small town Vermont for a series of amateur acting classes. All of the play’s action takes place in the rehearsal room during class times and nearly all of that occurs in the context of the acting exercises or games the teacher, Marty, leads her students through. (It’s one of these exercises the play takes its name from.) While this may sound like a rehash of Christopher Guests’ Waiting for Guffman, it couldn’t be further away from it. This is not a series of gags about small town life and characters bumping up against dreams of the theater. Instead the plays incredible economical dialog unravels a story about the experiences the characters have with one another both inside and outside of class. There are stretches of pregnant silence throughout and many of the laughs stem more from what isn’t spoken than what is. Baker never wastes time explaining the exercises letting them speak for themselves in her short, clipped scenes expertly directed by Sam Gold who has been closely involved with the success of Baker’s plays in New York.

The cast, all veterans of many local stages, is superb. Linda Gehringer plays Marty, the group's leader who is coping with the strains of her marriage to James, played by Brian Kerwin, who has been obligated to participate in the six week class. Meanwhile recently divorced Schultz, embodied here by a surprisingly hawt and butch Arye Gross, is beginning to fall for New York escapee and former actress Theresa, played by Marin Hinkle. The group is rounded out by the adolescent Lauren, winningly embodied by Lily Holleman whose go at teen angst never overwhelms the show and is spot on throughout. These are all great performances that mine the actors’ physical range in a script of relatively few words and the subtext of what the characters’ actually do say when they speak. There is a heart in Circle Mirror Transformation as well besides the laughs. Skeletons come clambering out of everyone’s closet as these characters learn to stretch their acting muscles and Baker expertly communicates this information to the audience in a manner that is both economical and smart. So if you want to see the next big thing, that can actually deliver on its promises, head down to Orange County where Circle Mirror Transformation continues at South Coast Repertory until Jan 30.

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